Pawnee Buttes Seeds grass tour teaches about range management, unique municipal water use
Understanding grass and soil have increasingly become an important issue for farmers, ranchers and land managers. Although being a steward of the land goes back for generations, recently, excitement about managed grazing and improving soils has increased.
Pawnee Buttes Seeds began doing their annual grass tour in 1991. The extension office had asked Pawnee Buttes Seeds owner Don Hijar out of Greeley, Colo., to consider helping with a grass tour. After working with extension and others involved in healthy grasses for several years, Hijar decided to take over the tour, with the first Pawnee Seeds tour held in 1996. The tour’s goal has been to bring together a diverse group of people to understand grass and water and how essential those two resources are to producing food, saving open space, and managing growth.
Hijar, who worked for the Soil Conservation Service in the 1980s (now the Natural Resource Conservation Service), said he “got the bug” about grassland and soils while he worked for the government agency.
“I see the importance of taking care of our soils, land, and grasslands,” said Hijar. “On the Front Range in Colorado, the Denver metro area is the fastest growing, but northern Colorado is the second fastest growing. As a rancher, it’s hard to deal with that, but the reality is we have a growing population, and it’s creating resource challenges.”
For the 2022 Pawnee Buttes Seed Grass Tour, Aug. 18-19, a group of more than 90 people toured the Toedtli Ranch and Thornton farms.
“Joe and Doug Hatch manage the Toedtli Ranch,” noted Hijar. “In 2019, when we had our last tour — 2020 and 2021 were canceled due to the pandemic — the father/son duo said they’d be happy to have the Toedtli Ranch on a range tour.”
This year attendees came from a wide range of governmental agencies, along with cowboys, ranchers, seed companies, agricultural companies, reclamation companies, etc.
“We had people from the city of Aurora, Colo., the Colorado section of the Society for Range Management, the Western Greeley Conservation District, and people from Thornton, as well,” Hijar said.
“It’s so important to have a cross-section of people on these tours,” Hijar added. “One of the reasons I invited Colorado Open Lands is they help people with conservation easements. That’s one way people can choose to keep their ranch as a ranch forever, and they put it in a conservation easement, and it will stay that in perpetuity. I think it’s important, for instance, to consider the habitat for birds, which ranges from Canada to old Mexico. On this tour, we try to have speakers to discuss soil and wildlife and how to run cattle on grass.”
Hijar hopes this type of tour will make people open their eyes, saying the problems in agriculture today aren’t just a problem for farmers, it affects everyone. It’s essential to work together and get people to understand and appreciate what the other side is doing.
Doug Hatch grew up on ranches, worked on ranches, and had worked on the Toeditli Ranch at one point and decided to return. He raised his son, Joe, on the ranch, who earned a degree in animal science at Colorado State University, and came back with new ideas about holistic range management.
During the tour, the Hatches described how they move their cattle often, wanting the animals to “only take one bite” before they move on. They want to move them before they take a second bite of the same plant, even if that means not grazing that pasture again for six months. The ranch is managed for drought, with a set amount of cow/calf pairs but a variable number of yearlings that can be increased or decreased depending on rainfall and range conditions.
“They primarily have native range except for about 70 acres that John, a former ranch owner, had irrigated,” said Hijar. “Now they don’t feed hay except for a few inclement days in the winter, they have changed their calving date until May, and they’re strict on culling. The Hatches like to say that they grow grass but market beef.”
On the second day of the tour, the group visited Thornton Farms, north of Ault, Colo., which is part of the Thornton Agricultural Stewardship Program. In the 1980s, the city purchased more than 18,000 acres of irrigated cropland — and the corresponding water rights — in Weld County, most land north of Greeley. Thornton coordinates with the NRCS to have the grass-stand assessed, and once it meets standards, it is certified as established self-sustaining dryland pasture.
“The 18,000-plus acres were purchased with the idea of drying up the land and using the water from the water rights from the city,” Hijar said. “They’ve dried up some of the land, but they also lease much of the land and the water to local farmers producing crops on it.”
The land the city purchased had around 100 houses, some with barns and corrals, so the city rented out the houses and, over time, retired those places. There are still about 75 small places on the city’s land.
The city is trying to figure out where to put a water pipeline. They want to take water out of the Poudre above Fort Collins, although Fort Collins wants Thornton to take the water to the east; Thornton would prefer to take the cleaner water before it goes through Fort Collins.
Hijar said his reason for asking the city of Thornton to be a tour stop; they have revegetated the lands they have taken out of production and taken the water from.
“When they put that range back into dryland species, they have to manage it,” Hijar said. “Up to a year ago, they’d cut it for hay and sell the hay. But they also had to control weeds and ensure there was no wind erosion. About a year ago or so, they wanted to experiment with grazing it. They built a fence around a section (to the city’s specifications), put a water tank in the middle, and are leasing it to a young man who is rotating his animals and managing it correctly. On the tour, we looked at the challenges of revegetation and disturbances, which included weeds, armyworms, and erosion, and the challenges of revegetation.”
Hijar noted that it’s essential to tie in rangeland, land use, soil health and urbanization together.
“For instance, what we do with irrigation water that Thornton has affects the lives of everyone who lives in Colorado,” Hijar said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a farmer who sells water or a municipality. Water is our food, and it’s all connected.”
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